Toronto Star

Leafs future hinges on Sundin deal

- DAMIEN COX

Given their current predicamen­t, there really is only one unthinkabl­e result to this season for the Maple Leafs.

That would be to miss the Stanley Cups playoffs — already a likely result — and then allow Mats Sundin to walk out the door as an unrestrict­ed free agent at season’s end.

To avoid that nightmare, one of two events must occur before the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

Sundin must be dealt to a contending team eager to pay a ransom for his considerab­le skills.

Or he must be signed to a new, multi-year contract.

What the Leafs cannot permit to occur, however, is for Feb. 26 to come and go without Sundin being either traded or signed. That would be utter madness. The opportunit­y to realize enormous gains in prospects and draft picks would be gone, and if the idea is to retain him at a sensible salary under the cap, any leverage the Leafs might have, such as Sundin fervently wishing to remain a Leaf for a hometown discount, would be lost.

Either they’d then have to overpay Bryan McCabe-style to keep him or they’ll be forced into a bidding war July 1. This is significan­tly different than last summer when the Leafs held an option on Sundin for the ’07-08 season, and then he agreed to re-work his deal to help the team with the cap.

Moreover, if the club misses the post-season, you’ll be looking at a new management team and quite possibly a new coaching staff. That would be a tough sell to Sundin, who turns 37 next month, and introduces the strong possibilit­y he’d signed elsewhere and the Leafs would get nothing for losing their best player and top asset.

Besides, if the Leafs really are willing to take a chance on trying to re-sign Sundin in June or July, that’s another reason to trade him before the deadline.

That’s what St. Louis did, after all, with Keith Tkachuk last year. They traded him to Atlanta for Glen Metropolit, two first-round picks, a second-rounder and a third, then re-signed him in the summer for $3.5 million (all figures U.S.) per season.

Theoretica­lly, the Leafs could do something similar.

If he’s made available before the deadline, Sundin will be more valuable than any other player on the market, and more valuable than any player who was out there last February.

The captain’s strong play this season — two more goals Saturday night — has been a blessing for the Leafs, who can demand more because the big Swede is still an impact player.

Last year’s deadline market was strong — Anaheim got a firstround­er for Shane O’Brien, Detroit wasted Canadian national junior team centre Shawn Matthias and a second-rounder to get Todd Bertuzzi from Florida — and there’s no reason to believe teams won’t be out trying to strengthen themselves again this year.

Imagine what Brian Burke might be willing to pay to give his Ducks a chance to repeat? Sundin would be the perfect replacemen­t for Teemu Selanne, and don’t forget, Anaheim owns Edmonton’s first-round pick.

Or what about Sundin as a winger for Sidney Crosby?

Re-signing Sundin, meanwhile, also has merit, as long as it isn’t simply based on sentiment.

If the Leafs believe he has three to four years left and can perform an indispensa­ble role in forging a winner, then you can make the argument keeping him makes sense. That’s why L.A. brought back Rob Blake, now 38, and paid him $6 million per season two years ago.

But if that’s what the Leafs are planning, they’ve got seven weeks to lock him up.

It’s either that or trade him, unless organizati­onal suicide is what MLSE has in mind.

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